Blood, it seems, is everywhere. It puddles on social media where no reasonable limit is placed on what people are allowed to post. Torture, executions, genocide: in the past year, I’ve seen sights that my grandfather, who lived through the trenches of the Somme, could never have seen and I only wish never to see again. I’ve seen in megapixel detail a close-up of a baby torn apart by shrapnel. I’ve seen charred twigs in a Nigerian playground: the incinerated corpses of schoolchildren too many to count. I’ve seen blood as it pools in the streets after stabbings, shootings, and terrorist outrages. Body parts. Mortality. The deep well of internet nihilism. Times are violent and we might only be at the beginning of a brutal spasm of our history.
Last week in Ireland, a young Portuguese sportsman became the latest victim of this bloodlust. His name was Joao Carvalho and he died from brain damage sustained fighting in a ‘Total Extreme Fighting’ competition in Dublin. He was the thirteenth person to have died since mixed martial arts (MMA) emerged as a sport in the 1980s. Only four of those deaths have happened inside sanctioned competitions but, as the sport’s popularity outstrips the ability of organisers to manage its success, unsanctioned fights are on the rise. There is, as yet, no governing body for MMA in Ireland.
Carvalho’s death should surprise few who have witnessed MMA develop from a minority interest in the martial arts community into the global phenomenon known as the ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ (UFC). It was, perhaps, more of a shock because it happened so soon after the mainstream media had fallen in love with the sport. Just a few weeks ago, a fight took place in Las Vegas that dominated the press. Conor McGregor was fighting Nate Diaz at UFC 196.
McGregor eventually lost the fight when he was forced to ‘tap out’ after Diaz put him in a choke hold that threatened to starve the oxygen from McGregor’s brain. That might sound like an overly clinical way of describing the end of a ‘thrilling’ match but such is the reality of a sport that attempts to place controls on techniques that are proven to kill. Much of UFC’s success comes down to how well that control has been maintained. MMA has managed to elevate itself from ‘cage fighting’ to become one of the world’s most rapidly growing sports. It has made men like McGregor into mainstream sporting idols; squash-nosed totems of a brutal age with their faces on the covers to computer games increasing their fame among the young. McGregor is personable and very media savvy. Last night he announced his ‘retirement’ on Twitter. Did he mean it? Probably not. Expect to see every bigger pay days in his immediate future. Audiences love his bearded hipster vibe and the well cut suits he wears for America’s late night TV audiences. They love it even more when he’s stripped down to his raw menace. A tiger tattoo covers his tightly muscled belly, his name and fighting nickname (‘Notorious’) above and below. Across his chest is a monstrosity of the tattooist’s art: some strange ape creature from Eastern mythology as imagined by somebody in love with the symbolism of the Prussian Empire.
To outsiders, the fights might look unremarkable and no different to street brawling. Yet the skills have taken years to master, no more so than the psychological training it takes to walk towards injury and to shrug aside pain. Indeed, it is the wide variety of injuries which critics argue makes MMA more dangerous that boxing but that, really, is to understate the complexity. There is a compelling argument which suggests that mixed martial arts and the UFC, in particular, are, in fact, much safer. The average UFC bout subjects the human brain to far less trauma than does a boxing match. UFC fighters wear gloves that are significantly lighter and offer less protection to an opponent’s head than the wider (but heavier) glovers worn by boxers. That might sound counterintuitive but, it is argued, fighters are safer if they succumb to one well-placed blow than if they are subjected to multiple rounds of heavy punches that repeatedly rattle the brain around inside the skull but rarely end in an outright knockout.
Even if you don’t find that argument convincing, there are other reasons to suggest that UFC is safer. The promoters can rightly argue that they take great care of their fighters and, it might be said, their investment. Medical staff can step in at any time and the match is over the moment a fighter is knocked out. That is different to boxing where, depending on the type and timing of the ‘knockout’, the fighter can recover to carry on.
We should, I think, accept all of this. We should bow to the wisdom of those that understand the sport from the inside. Let us also accept that, in terms of injuries, UFC is no worse than boxing. Let us, in fact, accept that the tragic death of Joao Carvalho was just one of the small number of deaths that can happen in any sport. MMA records fewer deaths than skiing, road cycling or long distance running. Statistically, even fishing records higher numbers of deaths each and every year. Above all, let us accept all these things because, there is a different discussion we should be having and it has nothing to do with statistics, the technical rules, or even assurances about the proper safety etiquette. We need to discuss a sport that panders to the worst instincts of our species.
As a spectacle, MMA is an obscene display of human barbarity. It celebrates qualities which, in a civilised age, we might have thought to have left behind. It is sport as conceived through a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex that knows the impulsive savagery that exists within all of us. It fuels the very worst instincts in the viewer; that feral urge to annihilate and to destroy. It is a slickly marketed bloodlust that turns opponents into carcasses to be beaten until it’s time for the burger ads.
Consider, if you can, the psychological conditioning required to kick somebody in the head. Consider too what it takes to kick somebody in the head when they’re in no position to defend themselves. Now, of course, MMA’s supporters would point out that kicking an opponent in the head when they’re prone is not allowed in MMA. Yet one knee on the canvas constitutes ‘standing’. So, imagine, if you could, a person kneeling in front of you. Now consider the riches you will earn if you could override your moral programming and raise your knee rapidly into that person’s face. Could you do it?
If you could do that or, perhaps, send your elbow crashing into their nose, then the outcome of your action would be considered the aesthetic of the sport. Blood is very much an iconic representation of MMA. It is more obvious, even, than in boxing. The nature of the fighting make the blood a natural lubricant, smearing bodies as the fighters wrestle on the ground. The canvas after a fight is a grotesquely dressed butcher’s slab on which advertisers seem proud to have their logo smeared with gore. After his fight against McGregor, Nate Diaz celebrated for the cameras; his face like something from a cheap horror movie, the gloopy bloody thick across his brow and his smashed nose, streaking in free flowing rivulets down his face, neck and chest. It is hardly an exception to the rule in a sport where fighters are given grim nicknames. Carvalho died after fighting Charlie ‘The Hospital’ Ward. It’s a dark humour in keeping with a sport that has also celebrated ‘The Axe Murderer’. They might only be words and, certainly, professional wrestling has done all this before with ‘The Undertaker’ and worse. Yet wrestling remains a parody of violence; a pantomime release of the ugliness that MMA makes real. It was bloodlust without the blood. MMA gives us the same bloodlust but with plenty of blood.
Before we talk about regulations, glove sizes, the length of rounds, and the location of emergency personnel, surely we should ask ourselves how we came to this. Does simply knowing that we can do this within safety margins justify anesthetising ourselves to causal violence? Supporters of UFC would argue that banning it would simply push it underground, where the sport would be unsanctioned by any governing bodies, unmonitored by health professionals, and posing a real risk to the fighters. Yet perhaps that’s where this barbarity belongs. Let it go back to that mythical world of gangster movies where fights take place in darkened warehouses or freight container ships moored in international waters. The world of bare knuckle boxing had (and continues to have) a certain majesty that was part bravery, party machismo, but largely a frontier spirit because it straddled legality. It was better because it was taboo.
Commodifying violence is to redefine the illegal as something belonging in the mainstream. It means that we condone the worst part of ourselves, that brain chemistry that helped our species survive in a dangerous primitive world. MMA is an attempt to cherish and harbour a psychology that cannot be controlled and, certainly, should not be encouraged. It drags our violent past back it into the spotlight. It exposes to the bright lights of prime time that part of our nature that should always be liminal, seen askance in the twilight, in the fringes of our culture. It brings violence so close to what’s reasonable that we should not be surprised if we find violence a convenient answer to our next problem.